Our Foreign Minister can be very emphatic. Bob Carr told an audience last month it was “too risky” for Australia “even to glance in the direction of talk of an Anglosphere”.
That is, to even think about talking about the deep relationship we have with the English-speaking world would be international relations suicide – like using the wrong fork at a dinner party. We would offend our neighbours and lose our friends.
It was clear who Carr was criticising. His speech didn’t mention the Opposition Leader, but Tony Abbott is a big fan of the Anglosphere. Earlier this year, Carr’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, was explicit: Abbott’s belief in the Anglosphere is one of the reasons he must be kept out of government.
But Abbott is right. It is obvious and important that we are part of the English-speaking world. Our heritage is not something to be ashamed of. It is not a coincidence the oldest surviving democracies are in the Anglosphere. Or that the Anglosphere harbours the wealthiest countries. Or that a tradition of liberty, stretching back to the Magna Carta, has given English-speaking nations a greater protection of human rights and private property than anywhere else. We ought to be proud, not bashful.
Sure, it’s more fashionable to talk about the Asian Century; the rise of China is fodder for white papers and airport non-fiction. But, for Australia, the Anglosphere will still shape our social, cultural and political views over the next 100 years. It’s a shame only conservatives feel comfortable talking about it.
To accept that old relationships should endure isn’t to close us off from the Asian Century. Instead, the acceptance will allow us to engage that future more confidently.
The Anglosphere is not about the English language. It is about a collection of values – individual liberty, the common law, parliamentary democracy, and open markets – we share with Britain, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the US. It recognises that different nations are joined by a common political culture. Carr and Rudd can protest all they want: the existence of that common culture is beyond question, and we are part of it.
Yet in his recent speech, Carr threw every barb he could against the Anglosphere, even dragging up the spectre of Pauline Hanson. This is a standard trope when anybody raises our English-speaking heritage – a suggestion, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, that conservatives are not so much interested in the Anglosphere, per se, but the Anglo-Saxon race.
That charge is total nonsense. The English-speaking world includes the most successful multicultural nations on the planet. All but Britain and Ireland are built almost entirely on immigration. And their success is entirely due to their institutional heritage – a liberalism which says all people, regardless of background, can peacefully coexist under a legal system that treats them neutrally. It is thanks to our Anglosphere inheritance that Australia’s multiculturalism functions as well as it does. We must not forget the former while we pursue the latter.
And spruikers of the Asian Century ought to be cautious. Forecasting the geopolitical future is tough. A highly praised book was published in 2005 titled Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century. That didn’t work out. Likewise, the Asian Century may turn out very different from what our best and brightest predict.
For instance, if China’s economy takes a dive, the region may well be led instead by India – a country almost as big, certainly more free, more closely integrated with Australia, and a former British colony to boot. India may now have the largest number of English speakers in the world. Even in the Asian Century, the Anglosphere is expanding.
Geography is less important than ever. And regions are less important than ever. Australia no longer suffers under the yoke of the tyranny of distance. Globalisation, technology, and near-zero shipping costs have taken care of that. The 21st century will be about relationships and ideas, not proximity.
So there’s an irony here. When Australia was an outpost of the British Empire, we were isolated. It took months to deliver a letter to the mother country. Now, as an independent nation, Australia is closer to other English-speaking nations than ever before. Global interconnection makes shared cultures and institutions more significant. We can communicate with the rest of the Anglosphere in a second, and travel there within a day.
The Labor Party’s intellectuals have been saying for decades Australia must assert its independence. You know the drill. We must not play deputy sheriff for the US. We ought to pursue a strong and self-sufficient foreign policy. We must be confident in our identity.
So it’s bizarre to hear our Foreign Minister claim that Australia should downplay its historical relationship with the English-speaking world – not because that relationship doesn’t exist, but because simply stating it might offend our neighbours.
You would think that was the opposite of what a confident nation should do.